Holidays are Hell: Anthology (“Six”)
This holiday, spend quality time with family and loved ones—living and dead . . .
There’s no place like home for the horrordays—unless you’d prefer a romantic midnight walk through a ghost-infested graveyard . . . or a haunted house candlelight dinner with the sexy vampire of your dreams. The (black) magical season is here—and whether it’s a solstice séance gone demonically wrong with the incomparable Kim Harrison, a grossly misshapen Christmas with the remarkable Lynsay Sands, a blood-chilling-and-spilling New Year’s with the wonderful Marjorie M. Liu, or a super-powered Thanksgiving with the phenomenal Vicki Pettersson, one thing is for certain: in the able hands of these exceptional dark side explorers, the holidays are going to be deliciously hellish!
My contribution to the anthology is called Six, and is set in Shanghai during Chinese New Year.
Six is one of the deadliest women in China. Trained from birth to be a warrior, a soldier for the secret police, she can handle anything, anyone. Except for one man. The only person who can save her soul. If she can keep him alive.
It was an accident that the Foreign Minister’s wife was found – her body had been hidden quite carefully, in several different locations – but the fortuitous combination of the harsh Beijing winter and several hungry dogs made her discovery quite immediate, without time for decay, and once the forensic team had finished analyzing the woman’s remains it was only a matter of time before the military became involved.
Which explained how, on the eve of Spring Festival, with the thunder of fireworks shaking the streets, Six found herself in a murky massage parlor in the heart of Shanghai, her hands covered in oil as she pounded the brown filthy feet of a man in a wrinkled black suit.
The air reeked. Cigarette smoke, cheap cologne, a multitude of unwashed bodies that had circulated through the room for hours upon hours, for days on end. The scents made Six’s nose run, her eyes itch, and though she had held her job for only three hundred sixty minutes – by her watch, anyway, which was atomic in nature and government issued – her brief tenure here was more than enough. As far as she was concerned, the other girls who worked in this place – legitimately, without pretense – deserved medals.
Not that Six had met any of them. As per the agreement with the massage parlor’s owner – who, according to his file, had long ago given up his Chinese name for the ridiculous foreign moniker of ‘Lucky John’ – Six had remained virtually locked inside this small room, forced to massage the feet and bodies of one man after another. If any of those paying guests asked for a different girl, Lucky John was to insist all the others were busy. And if he did not do exactly that – or if any one of the men discovered Six’s true identity – the repercussions had been made quite clear.
Police clear. Prison clear. End of life, clear.
Six rolled her shoulders, glancing at the man reclining in front of her on the wide red chair. His eyes were closed, his breathing deep and even. Not asleep, but certainly relaxed. His face was broad and flat; a large mole, replete with long black hair, made a target of his chin. A toothpick jutted from between his lips.
Six slid her thumbs along the arch of his foot, pushing between his toes. She pinched hard on the bone. He jerked, grunting, and she applied more pressure. The man opened his eyes and kicked at her. Six allowed his big toe to connect with her chin, though she angled her head just enough to make it a glancing blow.
“Bitch,” he growled, slapping the padded arm of his chair with one hard palm. “Careful.”
As Six was supposed to be deaf – like all the other girls of Lucky John’s massage parlor – she did not respond. Merely ducked her head, allowing her straight black hair to fall loose past her face, hiding the grim flat smile that passed fleetingly across her mouth.
Just outside the room’s painted bamboo door, Six heard footsteps. Quick, then slow, accompanied by Lucky John’s shrill voice. The man beneath her hands tensed. So did Six.
The door opened. Six glimpsed Lucky John’s distraught expression, his eyes large and focused entirely on her – stupid of him, a sure giveaway if these men were in any way observant and paranoid – but her view of the old pimp’s quick retreat was obscured by a broad chest and skinny tie, and then there was another man in the room and the door closed with a quiet click.
Six glanced up and met a flat gaze, cold as the thick black ice covering the old concrete of her first training installation; a gymnasium near the People’s Hall in Beijing, where she had studied alongside the country’s Olympic hopefuls before being culled young, no older than five. She still remembered. She remembered training on that ice, out in the blast of arctic wind. Toughening herself. Knowing she had to be stronger than the others, and for a different reason entirely.
The newcomer stared at her. Six dropped her gaze, but not before observing other oddities, such as the man’s utter foreignness, a purely physical difference that nonetheless revealed some kind of Asian ancestor through nothing more than the turn of his dark eyes and the prominence of his cheekbones. There was a hint of red in his hair, though; white man enough, running through his veins. Six could still feel him watching her when he shifted slightly, turned to the man reclining on the chair, and said, “I told you not to call me, Chenglei.”
His Mandarin was spoken perfectly, without accent. Smooth tones, full of the North and its soft curves; an elegant voice. More cultured than criminal; certainly educated.
Six continued massaging the foot in her hands. It jerked once, then stilled. “But you came.”
“I came because you’re trouble,” said the foreigner. “I came because I keep my eyes on trouble.”
“Trouble.” Chenglei’s foot twitched again. “Look to yourself, then. Look, and regret.”
“I have no regrets.”
“All you had to do—”
“I told you no.”
“You did,” Chenglei said. “But we found another. And he did not say no.”
The menace in those words was unmistakable, though Six did not understand their meaning. Nor did she need to. She was not an interpreter. Just muscle, a soldier, though at the moment even that did not give her pride. Too much distraction. She could feel the listening wire taped between her breasts. It had been warm, part of her, but now the thin casing was cold – she was cold – the whole room like ice, all the heat sucked away in one breathtaking punch that made her shudder with more than a chill.